How to choose your ski instructor
So now that we are well past New Year, and Verbier has had a few weeks to settle back into the quiet life, I thought that I would finally make the time to write another blog. Something that I find striking every year during peak season is the huge variety of ski instructors that you get coming out of the woodwork. You still see the familiar faces, the instructors who work hard all season to give their clients the best skiing experience that they can, but you also get everybody else, from instructors who must be closer to 80 than 70, through to the unqualified school kids looking for some pocket money. Obviously paying for ski lessons is a significant investment, and the cost for your lessons will not change depending upon who your instructor is, so the difference in value for money that people will be getting is quite dramatic. The aim of this blog is to introduce some of the things to look for when choosing a ski instructor, so that you can get the most out of your skiing experience.
Qualifications & experience / knowledge
Over the years there has been a fair amount of press in the UK about the situation for ski instructors working in France, and though this information has not always been correct it does at least mean that most people know that if they hire a ski instructor in France that person will hold a qualification. However, people will generally know a lot less about the situation in other parts of the Alps. The scary thing is that in Switzerland, if you book lessons with a ski school, your ski instructor can be completely unqualified and inexperienced. Here the important thing is the ratio of fully qualified instructors a ski school has working on any given day, and this means that a ski school will be most profitable if 80% of their instructors are qualified to a low level, as they will cost less to employ. This is most evident in Verbier during peak season, when every ski school will work as close to this ratio as they can so that they can maximise their profit. For most ski schools this means that during these weeks they bring in a lot of ringer ski instructors, who will have fairly dubious levels of qualification and experience.
For reference anybody who is working legally as an independent ski instructor (e.g. Mountain Relish) has to be qualified to the highest level.
Having said all that, qualifications are only one part of a bigger picture. I have heard it said that people only start to learn to drive after they have passed their test, and there is a lot of truth in the idea that experience in the real world is as important as having the right bits of paper. An example of how important this is in ski instructing would be understanding how different shaped turns, and different lines, down any given piste will impact different skiers. When I used to coach students towards their instructing qualifications how to use the terrain correctly was something that they quite often struggled to grasp, but the fact is that this knowledge can be the difference between a really successful lesson, and a disaster. Ultimately it is rather unfair on a client if they are paying to be the guinea pig with an inexperienced instructor who does not have this understanding yet.
If you consider going to see a doctor, and how you might feel a bit nervous if you discovered that they were either inexperienced or unqualified. Hopefully having ski lessons will not be quite as risky as the situation with the doctor, but an instructor having a good level of knowledge and experience should mean that they know how to keep you, or your loved ones, safer on the mountain. This is especially true when you ski off-piste, but even within the ski areas there will be ways to make things safer, especially when things start to get busy.
I am not going to start discussing exactly what levels of qualification, or experience, you should be looking for from your instructor, as there are no hard and fast rules, especially when you consider some of the other factors that I discuss below, but if at any point you would like specific advice you are very welcome to contact me.
Personality & attitude
For me personality and attitude are some of the most important factors when choosing a ski instructor. Quite simply when I think about the worst images of instructors that I see on the mountain it is as often down to their bad attitude to the clients as it is about their lack of knowledge. Quite simply if you are with an instructor you should always feel like the focus, and as if the instructor is trying to give you the best possible experience. If there is impatience, or disinterest, in their attitude it is really not fair on you. Whether you are a fantastic skier, or somebody who is petrified of the magic carpet at Les Esserts, it is their job to be patient, encouraging, supportive and engaging. Also if the atmosphere within the lesson contains any impatience or pressure it can have a serious impact on your ability to relax, which in turn can impact your learning.
Quite simply you should never feel like you need to apologise for not grasping something, or for being nervous, or conversely for asking to be pushed harder. Hopefully if you find somebody who has a good attitude, and a personality that you get on with, you will feel a level of trust that will allow you to relax and be honest with them (just see the goals section below), which in turn will help you to learn more.
A couple of years ago I taught a middle aged, married father who was an intermediate skier, but who had no great interest in improving his skiing. His main motivation for having ski lessons was that he wanted somebody to talk to, and to show him around (this is not so unusual, hence I offer accompanied skiing as a distinct product). However, a lot of the subjects that he wanted to talk about suggested that he was hoping to live vicariously through all the stories of a hard partying, stereotype of a ski instructor. If I am honest I do not think that he got the vicarious experience he hoped for when he found himself with a middle aged, married father as a ski instructor. My willingness to discuss the relative benefits of Moomins vs Winnie the Pooh as bedtime reading material was not quite what he had in mind. The lesson went ok, but I do think that in his case an instructor with less qualifications, and a different field of experience, would have been able to give him more of what he actually wanted.
Obviously most people who take ski lessons have some interest in improving their skiing, but that is not always the case, and the more honest you are with yourself, and your instructor, about what you want to get out of them, the better it will be for everybody.
Currently there are so many ski instructors in a resort like Verbier that it can be very difficult to differentiate the wheat from the chaff, and the way that ski instructors are marketed does not help. In most ski resorts you can find very average instructors being introduced on ski school websites in such a way that it would make you think that they were among the best instructors in Europe. With this level of spin it is very difficult for any client to work out what is actually true.
Ultimately I think that as a general rule making sure that you are getting an instructor who has a good level of experience and qualification is important, and then making sure that you are being honest about what your personal needs / requirements are.
Something that I think is very good about using independent ski instructors is that when you contact them you will be dealing with them directly, and so you can get a fairly good idea about who they are, and what they are like, as opposed to dealing with a ski school where the person answering emails might be delightful, but that does not tell you much about the person you are actually investing lots of money to spend your holiday with.
So if after all of this you would like to spend you time skiing with a fully qualified, very experienced, ski instructor, who has a broad base of mountain and sports science knowledge, and who has a very in-depth awareness of the relative benefits of reading Moomins vs Winnie the Pooh, please do get in touch.